The modern horror movie is in a pretty sorry state if this is what the kids are raving on about today. I didn’t read much into the hype. All I knew was that it wasn’t yet another “found film” or a “torture porn”, and Tiny Tim’s 1967 cover of the 1929 “Tip Toe Through the Tulips” was being a creepy interpretation. It sounded interesting enough, although I haven’t held out much for hope horror since around 2000. Barely a dozen of horror films have impressed me since then and all are rivalled by shows like “Masters of Horror” and “American Horror Story”.
As it turned out the first instalment of what has surprisingly become a franchise was better than most of its contemporaries. This isn’t to say it ranked amongst more original 21st century near classics like “Antichrist”, “Byzantium”, “Jeepers Creepers”, “Let the Right One In”, “The Grudge”, “Audition”, “Dog Soldiers”, “The Descent”, “Orphan” and “Saw”, but it was enough to keep me interested to the end. You will note that each of the aforementioned movies may fall under certain categories I now bemoan, but the difference is between initiation and imitation. Likewise, I don’t have a problem with sequels, remakes or even unoriginal concepts, so long as they are played well. After all, isn’t this the beauty of seeing the latest version of “Hamlet” or watching yet another adaptation of “Wuthering Heights”? The great screenwriter and director can take something we are familiar with to the point of boredom and then work it in such a way that we momentarily forget all other comparisons. These masters work like artistic chefs, assembling ingredients in such a manner that the end result is clearly much more than the sum of its content. “Insidious” is a rough patchwork of horror clichés with adequate yet clearly visible stitching. You could write out a list of common horror devices present in successful chillers over the past four or so decades and play a drinking game to them whilst watching the film. Be warned though, you are liable to be paralytic long before you see the film’s main antagonist.
The film’s strengths can be seen in the first act. The cast allow us to suspend disbelief and we get the feeling that James Wan’s direction will be restrained with a slow build up. There isn’t the annoyance of having a tedious premise insisting that the events are based on a true story. Haunted house and possession movies, such as James Wan’s other horror, the over-rated and very tedious “The Conjuring”, like to use this tactic. This is usually due to the fact that a lot so-called ghost-hunters and mediums have made a lot of money through helping to traumatize distressed credulous residents and publishing them in sensationalist books. With the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” it was cheeky – the film was at best inspired by the crimes of real schizophrenic double-murderer Ed Gein – but I forgive it for providing an urban legend feel. “Insidious” chooses not to insult our intelligence and we are eased into the lives of the newly moved Lambert family. Wan is successful in creating a natural feel that is often missed in many “found film” horrors. We know that there is something foreboding about to occur in the attic, but the suspense is mounted successfully and everything goes pretty well until the supernatural elements start to surface.
Stephen King wrote in his book on the horror genre, “Danse Macabre”, that the key to good horror is being able to weave the everyday with the impossible. It isn’t always true of more atmospheric or surreal pieces, but most horror either falls or rises on this weaving. Our guards need to be suitably lowered to the plausible order set around us, so that the supernatural elements can creep in and throw us into anarchy. “Ringu” did it by leading us on an adventure movie that engaged our sense so much that we bought into the conclusion before the real terror at the centre of the story crawled out of the television. “Psycho” did it by losing us in a heist movie, calming matters down, introducing a creepy yet somehow innocent voyeuristic sexual element and then letting hell loose in the shower. All the great Satanic horror films of the ‘70s, “The Exorcist”, “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Omen” crept the supernatural terror in early but wove it in such a way that we were made to question its legitimacy. “Insidious” gets the setting right and has a half-reasonable premise for its horror. However, when the horror arrives it is done in a crass, unoriginal and inappropriately cartoonish fashion, destroying much of the intended impact.
“Insidious” is one of those films that should turn every horror fan born before the 1990s into a frustrated grumbler. I was sat there watching it with a 20-something who was on his second viewing, having told the whole world that it was the scariest film available. Same said 20-something would derisively look at most movies made before 2000 as unimportant. You can imagine the anger-infused lesson in geeky cultural history that my mortal teeth were doing their best to withhold during this entire experience.
“Insidious” steals, with no sense of respectful homage, from several sources. It mounts tension using the attic cliché and blatant borrowing from “Poltergeist” and “The Amityville Horror”. As soon as the possession element comes in, we are almost right into “The Exorcist” territory. The use of “Tip Toe through the Tulips” is reminiscent of “Stir of Echoes”, but is probably copied from “Jeepers Creepers”. In another desperate attempt to bring us a new horror icon the creative department came up with a hackney-eyed “Lipstick-Face” demon in the typical Pan or fawn mould. You couldn’t get a more cartoonish appearance. He has cloven hooves and a fork-tongue like any clichéd devil. His red markings on black skin make him resemble Darth Sidious from “The Phantom Menace” and his wide-eyed stare with mouth open remind me of Animal from The Muppets. He sharpens his claws in a way immediately makes you think of Freddy Krugar, especially since this all occurs in a spectral world only occupied by spirits. All of this could still work in the right hands. Sadly it is too polished to have a low budget gritty charm or even a so-bad-its-good comedic appeal. It’s just pretty boring.
Having given a pretty damning review, I stand by my earlier points about it being watchable and better than a lot of what else is on offer. The under 30s, which this is probably aimed at, certainly took to the franchise and found it to be scary. For me, the positive side I see in “Insidious” is that hopefully audiences are beginning to pull away from a lot of the dross that has been dumped under the horror genre title in recent times and they are yearning for something new.
Don't forget to check out Jamie Clubb's main blog www.jamieclubb.blogspot.com